Call in the Cavalry

I’ve been boating my entire life, but I’m new to open water environments. In the event of an emergency, I want to be found fast. What’s the difference between an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon and Personal Locator Beacon? Is it true that EPIRBs are only useful if my boat sinks? – Julian Cortez

photography: ACR ARTEX

Personal floatation devices and inflatable life rafts save lives by extending one’s time in the water while waiting for rescue efforts, but how long do you want to drift with the current before being found? Fortunately, modern technology provides boaters and outdoorsmen with a host of advanced devices that can help search and rescue crews find you fast. The two most popular safety tools for mariners are EPIRBs and PLBs.

Designed specifically for marine use, EPIRBs transmit a 406 MHz distress signal to the NOAA Cospas-Sarsat center in Suitland, Maryland, via low earth-orbiting and geostationary satellites. These waterproof devices can be manually or hydrostatically activated to transmit an emergency distress signal with your position and detailed vessel description. EPIRBs float, feature built-in strobes and can also transmit a homing signal via 121.5 MHz to further pinpoint your location. Category I EPIRBs are best mounted in an external location and designed to release and activate automatically upon immersion. Since many outboard-powered vessels are foam filled and remain afloat after capsizing, category II EPIRBs that are manually activated and often stored in a ditch bag are generally the first choice for recreational mariners.

Comparatively, PLBs are smaller in size and registered to individuals, not vessels. One of the primary differences between the two devices is that PLBs should be worn or carried on you at all times. Similarly, both devices transmit bursts of digital distress information to orbiting Cospas-Sarsat satellites. However, the battery life of a PLB is limited to roughly 30 hours depending on the unit purchased. EPIRBs transmit for a minimum of 48 hours, with some offering exceptional 96 hour operational life. Additionally, not all PLBs float and they must be hand-held or mounted in the right attitude so the antenna extends above the waterline, whereas EPIRBs self-right and transmit regardless of human interaction.

Most of the newest PLBs and EPIRBs also feature built-in 66 channel GPS. Instead of a two- or three-mile range typical with older beacons, modern units can bring search crews within 100 meters of your transmit location. No matter what device you choose, 406 MHz beacons do not require any service subscriptions. Still, they must be registered at and information needs to be updated every two years. While EPIRBs were once the industry standard safety device, many boaters choose PLBs because they are smaller, cheaper and can be used to facilitate rescue anywhere in the world, not just marine environments. However, vessel owners should first invest in an EPIRB. It’s as much a priority as life jackets and flares. Head offshore without any sort of distress beacon and you’re rolling the dice every time you leave the dock.

Though it’s surprisingly common, boat owners go above and beyond to equip their vessels with top of the line speakers, multi-function displays, outboards and fishing gear, yet regularly overlook essential safety equipment. And despite the minimal maintenance attention they are given, PLBs and EPIRBS are invariably expected and required to operate without flaw.

While safety should be the number one incentive, the State of Florida recently passed the Beacon Bill (HB711), which reduces registration fees 25% annually for recreational vessels equipped with an EPIRB or PLB. This accounts for almost one third of the purchase price of a new beacon over a five-year period.